Where Do I Come From?

Active Image

by Margaret Watson


I was born only a few miles from the geographical centre of England. My cousin, the daughter of my mother’s twin, was born a few weeks earlier only 18 miles further south. Throughout our childhood we saw each other several times a month. You would think then that our accents would be similar, but even in this relatively small island there are numerous differences – few men from Cornwall would understand first time round someone from Tyneside in the North East and vice versa. My cousin and I are quite similar in lots of ways, we even look alike and in early photographs it is difficult to tell her children from mine. However, we pronounce many words rather differently. She has always lived below the line that differentiates those who use a long vowel and those who cut it short. – She says ‘BARTH’ and I say ‘BATH’. She says ‘PARTH’ and I say ‘PATH’. My children, who spent their early years in the south and grew up near Manchester, have combined the two – They have a ‘BARTH’ in the ‘BATH’ or even a ‘BATH’ in the ‘BARTH’, while hers are definitely southerners.

Only real Brummies usually realise I was born in Birmingham, just across the way from Julie Walters and within a couple of miles of Ossie Osbourne. I have never tried to deliberately change my accent, but I have moved about quite a lot, having lived in several countries and various parts of the U.K. There is one word though that people always notice – ‘bus’. I just cannot pick out what it is about this one word, which when I say it tends to come out as ‘Buzz’.

In some languages accents are less important – In Urdu for instance I had no problems north or south – it is a phonetic language so sounds quite similar in various parts of Pakistan. The difference there is rather in the choice of words used. Those from nearer the western borders tend to use words of Farsi origin rather than those from Hindi and so on.

English though has spread around the world – up into Scotland, across to Wales at first, but later of course right round the world. And it spread long ago so now has developed in somewhat different ways – the English of someone from Dehli for instance varies considerably that of a South African, an Australian, a Canadian and so on. This doesn’t mean that any of them are in any way inferior or superior, in the same way that my cousin’s English isn’t inferior or superior to mine.

Sometimes though differences can produce slight problems. My sister-in-law was born in Malaysia. After nearly 30 years in the U.K. she has retained the accent of her youth. Recently we discovered that, thinking corned beef was Quorned beef, she had served it in a ‘vegetarian’ lasagne to a number of people – though no one noticed or complained.

English is my first language, but my understanding of French is reasonable. However my accent doesn’t always fit. I was taught by a teacher from Marseille and another from Lille, but my sister lived for some years in Mons, Belgium, which is where I first practised my French. In a Parisian supermarket recently someone in the queue asked the checkout lady who we were. ‘They are Belgians’ was the reply. A sort of compliment for at least they didn’t spot that we were from across the channel. A week or so later someone from Normandy said my accent was too southern, like someone from the Med.

You will have your own language history – your whole life will contribute towards the way you pronounce things. As long as you are understood and can understand don’t let it worry you.